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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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His stretch on the river

A great forgotten writer

June 1st, 2016

BY JOHN M. DANIEL

I learned three-quarters of what I know about writing from reading Richard Bissell, God bless him. — Elmore Leonard

Everyone who calls himself or herself a writer is asked from time to time, “Who is your favorite writer?” The writer may be prepared for this interview question and answer the same way every time, but the truth is more likely less monogamous. The position of favorite writer may change from year to year, from mood to mood, from book to book. Perhaps a more insightful question, with a more constant answer, would be: “Which writer first made you want to be a writer yourself?”

bissellI confess that like many teenage would-be writers of the 1950s, I imitated Salinger shamelessly. I also gobbled up Robert Nathan, laughed out loud at Patrick Dennis and Max Shulman, and was dazzled by Truman Capote. But from the moment I first read him, the writer who turned me on the most, the one who made writing seem not only worthwhile, but fun, was Richard Bissell.

Bissell entered my life by accident. When I was thirteen my older brother gave me the Broadway cast recording of a musical called The Pajama Game for Christmas. This was a mistake; it was supposed to go to my Uncle Hob, who was a huge fan of musical theater. I was supposed to get an EP record of the Four Freshmen. By the time the mix-up got sorted out, I had listened to The Pajama Game a hundred or so times and had memorized all the songs, so they were going in my head nonstop whenever they weren’t filling the house at top volume from the hi-fi.

The brilliant movie of The Pajama Game came out a couple of years later, and I saw it more than once. This is not a movie review, so I’ll skip to the point, which is that even at the age of fifteen, I knew I was hearing a crackerjack screenplay, by George Abbot and Richard Bissell. I was hooked on this story of blue-collar workers in small-town Iowa, and I resolved to read 7-1/2¢, the 1953 novel on which the stage play and movie were based. I bought a paperback copy (the title on that edition, for copyright or commercial reasons, had been changed to Pajama) and I read it — twice. Forget Salinger, this was a true-to-life story about genuine people, laced with important issues (labor relations), sex (Sid and Babe do it, and enjoy doing it), pitch-perfect dialogue, and laugh-out-loud humor.

That began my devotion to a writer who influences and delights me to this day. I bought and read all his books. I still reread his novels every few years, refinding them as fresh, honest, funny, and original as they were the day they were printed, even though his “newest” novel is now forty-five years old. I made drive-by pilgrimages to his homes in Rowayton, Ct. and Dubuque, Iowa, too shy to ring his doorbells. I sent him a fan letter after I graduated from college and decided, largely thanks to him, to become a writer; but his reply chased me all over Europe until it got left behind in an American Express in Madrid when I decided to go to Greece instead, so my hoped-for literary correspondence died at birth. Over the years I’ve bought multiple copies of his novels in used bookstores and given them away to writers and readers I considered worthy of such gems. Those novels never show up in used bookstores anymore. Maybe because I bought them all.
I wish I had met Richard Bissell. I wish I had bought him a drink at his favorite bar. I wish I could have thanked him. The best I could do was to dedicate my first published novel to him, by which time he was dead.

Richard Pike Bissell was born June 27, 1913, in Dubuque, Iowa. He was the second son in a prominent, wealthy family. His grandfather had made a fortune in the garment business, manufacturing shirts and pajamas. Young Dick Bissell went to Phillips Exeter Academy, where he met his future wife, Marian (whom he calls “Frankie” in his books). He then went on to Harvard, where he majored in anthropology and took classes from sociologist Pitrim Sorokin (he named the hero of 7-1/2¢ Sid Sorokin, in honor of this favorite teacher).

After college he became an ordinary seaman, then worked as a deck hand on riverboats on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers. Eventually he earned a pilot’s license on the Upper Mississippi, the first writer since Mark Twain to have that distinction. His novels A Stretch on the River (1950) and High Water (1954) draw from his experiences working on tugs and barges on the Mississippi.

A Stretch on the River is the story of Bill Joyce, the second son in a wealthy family, who decides to forsake high society and sign on as a deckhand on a diesel towboat called the Inland Coal. He finds himself keeping company with hard-working, hard-drinking, fast-talking, loud-laughing rowdies, not to mention lady friends in port towns up and down the river. Bissell’s ear for dialogue is brilliant, funny, and true. He clearly likes the work and the working life of the working class — this is his own experience he’s writing about, after all — but he doesn’t romanticize it or downplay the difficulty or the danger. One remarkable chapter is about the drowning death of a deckhand named Shorty, told almost entirely by Shorty himself in one long paragraph that goes on for six pages. That may sound gimmicky, but it’s not. Wallace Stegner included this chapter as a stand-alone story in his anthology Great American Short Stories.

It was in this first novel that Bissell introduced his fascination for dark-haired, tough-talking women (or girls, as he was allowed to call them). The woman’s name is Merle in this novel. In High Water she’s Marie Chouteau, a flood victim who has lost everything in the disaster, including, literally, the shirt off her back. In Goodbye, Ava, she’s Jeri Valentine, a would-be country-western singer-songwriter. In Bissell’s dreams, the dark lady is Ava Gardner, who haunts his books. As he says in Say Darling, “I would never stand in line ten minutes, not even to see Ava Garner in the raw (P.S. I take that back).”

Not all of Bissell’s work experience came from the river. He also worked in the family clothing business, which he called the Sleep Tite Pajama Factory in 7-1/2¢. That novel, his second (and his third book) brought him fame and fortune from Broadway. The musical in turn formed the basis of his fourth novel, Say Darling (1957), an affectionate but stinging satire of the New York show business scene, as seen by a midwestern hick brought in to convert a novel into a musical. Say Darling itself became a musical, and once again Bissell co-wrote the script.

His next novel, and for my money his best, was Goodbye, Ava (1960), set back in Dubuque (called Blue Rock in the book) and back on the river, this time not on a tugboat but on a houseboat. By this time, Dick and Marian Bissell were living in a houseboat on the Mississippi, docked at the harbor of his home town. In Goodbye, Ava Bissell is at the top of his form, focusing more on the people than on the dangers of life on the river. Here is a quote thrown into the middle of the novel, spoken by a character who has no other role in the book than to deliver these choice words:

“‘They is just a hell of a difference,’ old Captain Windy Taylor used to say, ‘between listening to that there so-called news all day long on the radio and reading it all written down nice in a newspaper. With a newspaper you can get right into them details. Them details is what counts. Now you take and suppose some onnery bastard takes and kills his old lady for example. Now that’s just exactly what they will tell you on the radio that he done. But god damn it less have some details. Now there’s where your newspaper comes in at. Old newspaper he will tell you just exactly how the old boy done it, and if he bashed her in with a shovel by God old newspaper he will tell you the brand name of the shovel. You can just give me a newspaper every time.’”

While Bissell was writing fiction, he also contributed travel articles to Holiday and Venture, many of which were compiled into a humorous nonfiction book called How Many Miles to Galena (1968), about travels, mainly with his family (he and Marian had four children: Thomas, Anastasia, Nathaniel, and Samuel) around the U.S.A. Travel was also at the center of his final novel, Still Circling Moosejaw (1965), a take-off on big business and international relations, with a caper that takes off running from New York to Castro’s Cuba to the Upper Amazon.

In addition to How Many Miles to Galena, Bissell also wrote five other nonfiction books: The Monongahela (1952), which he wrote for the Rivers of America Series; You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man (1962), a light-hearted history of his alma mater; Julia Harrington (1969), a visual hodgepodge scrapbook of midwestern Victoriana; My Life on the Mississippi, Or Why I Am Not Mark Twain (1973), a memoir of growing up on the river; and New Light on 1776 and All That (1975), a comic revisionist history of the American Revolution.

Richard Bissell holds up well as a travel writer and a writer of comedic nonfiction, but his best work is his fiction. And his best fiction is found in his four midwestern novels, be they on the Mississippi River or in the town he calls Junction City in 7-1/2¢ and Blue Rock in Goodbye, Ava. Both towns are thinly disguised versions of Dubuque, where Richard Bissell was born, where he lived most of his life, and where he died on May 4, 1977. His tombstone, which he shares with Marian, is a giant granite slab with a map of the Upper Mississippi carved into it from top to bottom.
No grander epitaph is necessary, but if there were room, it would be good to see, etched into the granite, this passage from The Monongahela:

“To have a river in your blood, you have to work on her for wages…. Oh, they’re not all bold and reckless adventurers. A heap of them are as dumb and drab and spiritless as can be, but in the main they want to go places and do big things out under the sky. And when the whistle blows and they have to get out and make a lock they cuss and moan and claim they’re gonna quit. But mostly they stay. That’s the way it always was on the river, and the way it always will be, until the Monongahela and the Youghiogheny and the Tygart and the West Branch run dry, and the last steamboat whistle has echoed back off the hills, filling the valleys with that mournful music that haunts you wherever you go.” •

From the July 2010 issue.

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Black Lamb Review of Books, Books and Authors, Daniel | Link to this Entry

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